WITH the possible exception of South Africa, no country that has tested an atomic bomb has given its nuclear weapons up. So no matter what the world now does to punish North Korea for its underground test on October 8th, Kim Jong Il's hermit kingdom is likely to hang grimly on to its bomb. If you are the paranoid dictator of a friendless state that is still technically at war with both South Korea and the United States, a nuclear arsenal is your ultimate insurance policy.
To say this is not to say that North Korea should go unpunished. On the contrary, it must be punished even if the punishment is unlikely to change its ways. That is because other would-be nuclear proliferators, with Iran to the fore, are now watching to see whether it is really as easy as Mr Kim has made it look to go nuclear in defiance not only of the dire warnings of the United States and the United Nations but also of powerful neighbours such as Russia and China.
In New York the UN Security Council denounced the North Korean test. George Bush refuses to take any option off the table, implying a readiness to react with military force. Yet America has few military options. Even without nuclear weapons, Mr Kim in effect holds the South Korean capital, Seoul, hostage: his conventional rockets and artillery could rapidly flatten much of the city, killing tens of thousands. And although the Americans could bomb the North's reactors, they do not seem to know where the regime hides its fissile materials and any bombs it has made from them.
Hopes of applying tough new pressure on Mr Kim therefore rest mainly on China. The Chinese could, if they wished, starve North Korea's people and switch off its lights. They are also very angry. Having denounced Mr Kim's “brazen” disregard of world opinion, China went on to speak for the first time of the need for (“appropriate”) punitive action (see article). But Mr Kim, for all his megalomania and paranoia, is a shrewd tactician. He has evidently made a bet with himself that for all their huffing and puffing the Chinese will not in the end want to blow his regime down. And he may be right.
A strategy of sanctions has two weaknesses. One is that Mr Kim, who has already presided nonchalantly over mass starvation inside his country, cares little about the suffering of his own people; he knows that China knows it could cut off his fuel and food and still not force him to give up his bomb. The other is that really harsh sanctions might bring about the sudden collapse of his regime. And however angry China may be about Mr Kim's bomb, it has so far sadly seemed much more anxious to ensure that his regime does not collapse.
Why so? The main threat a North Korean bomb poses to China is indirect: it might persuade Japan to arm itself with nuclear weapons too, though Japan rules this out for now. By contrast, both China and South Korea would face immediate consequences if Mr Kim's regime imploded. Fine if an orderly coup installed a more pliant government, or if (the blithe hope underpinning the South's “sunshine policy”) the North could be guided gradually towards political openness and economic sanity. But a sudden collapse could be highly unpredictable and perhaps violent, spilling millions of desperate refugees into both China and South Korea and lumbering both with the vast, unwanted expense of rescue or reunification.
In 2002 Mr Bush lumped Iraq, North Korea and Iran together in an “axis of evil” and said he would stop them acquiring nuclear weapons. He implied that regime change in Iraq might be followed by regime change in North Korea and Iran. Now one says it has the bomb and the other is ignoring Security Council orders to stop enriching uranium. The anti-proliferation policy Mr Bush put at the forefront of his foreign policy has been a colossal failure. Is there any way to turn it round?
Not if the big powers follow Mr Kim's script. He plainly expects them to wax briefly indignant but then shrug their shoulders and learn to live with his bomb, just as they live with those of Israel, India and Pakistan. Mr Kim says it was America's threats that made him seek a deterrent. Some will cite this as proof that a policy of sanctions is self-defeating.
But this is a misunderstanding. Since Iraq, Mr Bush has tried to build coalitions against proliferation. China took the lead in the six-country talks on North Korea; Britain, France and Germany took the lead on Iran. The trouble is that when persuasion has failed the other big powers have refused to apply pressure. China is set on protecting Mr Kim, and both China and Russia are pathetically reluctant to clamp even mild sanctions on a rising, energy-rich power such as Iran.
If the world is to prevent the spread of nuclear weapons, the Russians and Chinese will have to give up some serious interests in order to cause real pain to proliferators. Good relations with Iran are worth sacrificing for the bigger aim of preventing a chain reaction of proliferation across the Middle East. As for Mr Kim, the moment has come for his neighbours to see the folly of paying for short-term stability by propping up a dictator who has slipped dangerously out of control, and whose nuclear delinquency threatens to spark a much wider nuclear arms race in Asia. That would be in nobody's interest. Both China and South Korea ought now to follow Japan and back tough sanctions even if these do topple the regime. It will fall one day anyway, and this is the time to prepare.
America may need to make sacrifices too. It was not Mr Bush who sent North Korea and Iran on their nuclear trajectories: both started their programmes decades ago. But such regimes need to believe that they can desist and still be safe. Tough sanctions must therefore be coupled with clearer incentives. Mr Bush has already told both governments he has no desire to remove them. If they need stronger guarantees he should give them—in return for a verifiable end to their weapons programmes. It will not be easy for a president who wanted to spread democracy to do this. But that, in an imperfect world, may be the price of preventing dictators from controlling the weapons that could kill millions.